My career is a happy accident. It might seem like a straight line, but it is not.
There is an element of going out and seeing in my work, and therefore the tropics and remote areas appeal more than places that are more urban. If you see places through the eyes of the people who are living there – not seeing them as a vicarious tourist – that is best. A place only seems remote to you, not to the people living there.
The Edge of Extinction aims to work as a mirror for those of us living in industrialised countries. The background to the book is how we live our lives and how happiness is elusive. It tells stories about people who live close to the land. The theme is saving the planet, but it is not didactic.
The idea came about as a follow-up to my 400-mile walk along the East Anglia coast where I told stories and reflected on life around the sea. For Extinction, I follow lines of longitude east to west, starting in California and ending in New Zealand. There is no special logic to it, except I wanted the majority to be in industrialised areas rather than remote forests like the Amazon.
There are common themes enclosed in each area, whether Kuba, in central Russia, or northern Canada or with the Amish farmers in the US. When it comes to dealing with each of those cultures, ‘slow time’ is a very common theme. How people don’t rush at things. Storytelling, whether stone lines or by oral methods, is also important. Enclosed within each area is a complete story that can be followed through.
In Kuba, nomadic herders live in yurts with solar panels to let them watch television. I like that because it’s not about creating a mythical past.
Those nomadic herders have created the Steppes of Central Asia over 5,000–6,000 years. Political mistakes, like the authorities trying to make settlers part of permanent communities, change the landscape. It is no longer managed, and when contemporary agricultural practices were introduced to those landscapes it was a failure.
Sustainable agriculture is the notion that you can create forms of food production that are good for nature. Lots of agricultural systems have emerged whereby harm is caused – sometimes unintentionally – to ecosystems. Sustainability wants to design systems that make best use of ecosystems, looking at the inputs very carefully. My work has been to understand the particularities of cultures and environments. Sustainability must be linked to place.
For a long time, sustainability had a central expectation that there would be a trade off, like a decrease in production. You had to suffer by not eating meat, or wearing different clothing. These days it’s less ‘either/or’. It’s a mistake not to argue for both sustainability and retaining certain advantages.
There’s no one factor that makes something sustainable. There have been many attempts to create indicators and measures, but these are all flawed because they depend on different views of the world. Sustainability is not an arrival point, but a way of living, of interacting with people and the planet. The construction is different in different places, whether it’s soil erosion or the best way to enjoy the land.
This is also a term that means different things to different people, but if you ask what it means to live close to the land and be happy, that leads you into helpful territory. People construct it in different ways. It’s more a question of how we look after stuff: How can we make sure it goes on long after we leave?
100 Hearts and Habits is a campaign based on the challenge of climate change. Climate change is often seen as a matter for international bodies, but what I wanted was to say there are lots of little things people can do that make our lives better as well as the environment. This includes loneliness, which medically costs us £20billion a year. Being lonely is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. In many places I went, people would not understand the concept of loneliness. The elderly are kept together with young people, for example.
Looking out of my window I can see a buzzard. Little things like that can make a great difference to combating loneliness, creating attentiveness.
1981 Gains MSc in Environmental Technology, Imperial College
1997–1999 Director of the Centre for Environment and Society
2000 Professor of Environment and Society, University of Essex
2004 Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
2006 Awarded an OBE for services to sustainable agriculture
2013 This Luminous Coast wins the New Angle Prize for Literature
This review was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine